The best pitchers in baseball are the ones who can keep hitters off balance. They aren’t always the ones who look the part or throw the hardest. Sometimes they look downright scholarly and barely throw 90 miles per hour. (Greg Maddux looked like he’d have been more at ease in a pub with C.S. Lewis than on the mound facing Barry Bonds.) Other times they glower and intimidate and throw 100. But they always, ALWAYS succeed by keeping the hitters off balance. They throw the ball precisely where they want it. They throw curve balls to buckle the knees. They throw a little chin music to get the hitters on their heels. And no matter what, they keep the hitters off balance.
If a pitcher has the fastest fast ball or the bendiest curveball, but that’s all he can throw he might find some success, for an inning or two here and there. But in the long run they will fail. Hitters will catch up, learn the one trick he has, and crush him. The only exceptions are those pitchers whose one pitch is so good they can use it over and over again (think Mariano Rivera and his cut fastball or Trevor Hoffman and his changeup). But even then they only succeed for three or four outs at a time.
It is no different for writers. Predictability is the death of good writing. A one-trick writer might put out some enjoyable pieces, but once the reader learns that trick all the endings become predictable and the thrill is sucked right out. A good communicator varies speeds, throws a curve when the reader expects something straight, and just maybe throws something a little wild to keep the reader ducking. Readers might know his or her whole arsenal, but we’re never sure what’s coming next.
Off balance is precisely where a batter doesn’t want to be and a reader does because off balance means a person is vulnerable. Vulnerability gives away the advantage. With the advantage a pitcher generates bad swings, but what does a writer generate? Whatever she wants. When a reader is off balance his emotions and mind are vulnerable to the writer’s message. And this is a good thing. It’s where conviction, passion, and imagination happen.
Readers, next time you watch Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez make the opposition look like bat-waving fools, think about this. Find the authors who leave your knees buckled and have you helplessly at their mercy. It’s a good thing to be off balance. Even the authors you are comfortable reading, who you trust, should surprise you with insights and twists so that your mind and heart are never fully at ease.
And for you writers, throw a changeup here and there and keep your readers on their toes. And maybe throw a high hard one to get them unsettled and vulnerable to your message. Be consistent, but never totally predictable.